Was it rape if they didn't fight back? Can they have been violated if they'd had sex with the perpetrator previously? Is it assault if they don't say no but they also clearly didn't say yes?
Shame and self blame seem to be the leading causes for women's reluctance to define something as rape, but it's also not uncommon to hear women express confusion over what happened to them. Was it rape if they didn't fight back? Can they have been violated if they'd had sex with the perpetrator previously? Is it assault if they don't say no but they also clearly didn't say yes?
I was reminded of this confusion earlier today when I read a disturbing piece published by Jezebel. In "Was I Raped?", writer Aliya S. King recounts an incident that occurred over two decades ago, in 1998. At the time, King was fronting what she implies was an unsuccessful R&B cover band. As she says, "My lack of vocal talent became a bit of an issue" so she began having extra practice sessions on Sunday mornings with "Dave" (name changed), the band's guitarist. From the first day they met, King says Dave kept trying to hook up with her. She made it clear she wasn't interested but he persisted anyway. King writes:
"One day, at his apartment before rehearsal, he asked, sincerely, why I wouldn't have sex with him. I told him, sincerely, that I wasn't attracted to him in the least. And that was that. But Dave wanted to negotiate.
'Do you have to be attracted to me to have sex with me?' he asked, looking down at his guitar.
'Well. Yeah,' I said. 'That's usually how that goes.'
Dave looked up at me, his face brightening: 'How about you just have sex with me as a favor.'
'A favor to whom?' I asked.
As if this cavalier attitude to women's obligations wasn't bad enough, here's where things got worse. King describes how, despite her protestations, Dave kept pushing the issue. At least five times during the next hour, he interrupted their practice to try to lean in for a kiss. King says at the time she didn't feel endangered - she just felt annoyed. When they decided to take a break, Dave edged closer and closer to her on the couch and started kissing her neck. Exhausted with her dissent being ignored, King just sat there figuring he would stop once he realised how unresponsive she was being. Instead, he proceeded to lay her down on the couch, removed her clothes and had sex with her while she waited for it to be over. Afterwards, he kissed her on the cheek and they continued to rehearse.
But was it rape? This is the question King has been grappling with for the last 17 years. Indeed, it's one that confuses many women who feel they may or may not have been subjected to some kind of assault. It's also one that galvanises a lot of outsiders to make definitive declarations about what is and isn't violating behaviour based on the interpretation of the law. In King's case, the law would not determine what happened to her to be rape and for some people this is all the evidence they need to dismiss coercive behaviour as inconsequential. As she says, she didn't tell Dave no when he began to remove her clothes. She didn't struggle or fight back. And she wasn't afraid of what would happen if she did. Essentially, she just lay there and waited for it to be over because she had grown tired of the way he refused to acknowledge or deal with her rejection.
And this is the problem. That while King may not have said no in the moment, the fact is that she had said no. She had said it all through the hour preceding the incident and she'd said no for the days and weeks before that. None of that mattered to Dave, who couldn't understand why should wouldn't just 'let him' have sex with her because he wanted to. So he just kept pushing and coercing and cajoling her until eventually she stopped saying no.
This is not consent. It may not exactly be rape (although I personally believe it is up to the individual to decide this - if you have found yourself in a similar situation and firmly believe that what happened to you was rape, then you have my unequivocal support) but it absolutely is not consent. Men wheedling women into 'letting them' do what they want isn't equality and it isn't a sign of respect. Apart from it calling their understanding of women's autonomy into doubt, it also raises serious questions about why they would want to participate in the kind of sex from which their partner is essentially absent and just waiting for it to be over. That this kind of thing still happens today is a sign of how far we still have to go when it comes to teaching the importance of respectful relationships and mutually enjoyable sexual activity.
This is why the model of enthusiastic consent is so important. Women's bodies aren't there to satisfy the urges of men. It isn't our job to 'give in' to sexual coercion or mete out sexual favours to the people who petulantly demand them. Crucially, we need to have a much broader discussion about the complexities of what rape and sexual assault can look like. We hopefully know now that it isn't just about alleyways and stranger danger (in fact, it is mostly not about these things) but there's still a long way to go to understanding how it's also not just about vocalising a firm no as sexual activity is immediately about to commence. We also have to teach people to listen to and respect the nos that are given in the lead up to these events.
"Was it rape? In King's case, only she can decide that. But in terms of our community as a whole, if enthusiastic consent was properly understood and instigated by everyone, we would soon find it was a question no one needed to ask.